How can you have fun with your kids when all you want to do is scream at them?

As a teenager, I was part of a traveling mime troupe. I'm surprised at how often the skill set I learned through clowning has helped me in parenting. There are the obvious skills, like juggling and balloon tying, that come in handy when trying to distract a two-year-old. My mime training also means I can call upon a decent death stare when necessary. But the most useful skill thing I've gained from clowning is the license to jump into a situation and change it. Although I hung up my suspenders nearly two decades ago, I try to channel Sparkles the Clown when dealing with a cranky toddler by looking for fun in unexpected places.

So I was thrilled to hear a recent episode of The Longest Shortest Time feature a clown! I highly recommend listening to the episode in the car with kids, who will enjoy all of entertainer Andy Sapora's squeaks, whistles, and farts. I have never heard so cogent an argument for the value of farts, which is alone worth the time to listen.

The larger principle Sapora and host Hillary Frank are discussing is "finding the game": how to, in even your darkest parenting moments, get your kids to do what you want...and to have fun doing it. Frank describes five principles of clowning that can help you find and play the game with your kids.

  1. Complicity: "Although people think you're misbehaving as a clown," Sapora says, "you can't do anything unless the audience wants you to do it." So too with parenting: you need to win over your kids, get "buy in," to get them to do what you want. Absolutely key to "finding the game," then, is finding a game that your kid will want to play.

  2. Lack of a fourth wall: The second key to finding the game is allowing your audience (in this case your kid) participate. Be willing to let your kid "guide the game," trying new things until you get that all-important complicity.

  3. Repetition: If something is working, keep doing it!

  4. Surprise: You may not be carrying size 100 underpants around like Sapora, but as Frank notes, you can surprise your kids out of a tantrum by turning anything in your house into a prop. Just use it in an unexpected way and fold it into your game.

  5. Permission to break the rules: Part of finding the game might be actually granting permission to your kid to do the thing you don't want him to do. A really hammed-up "Whatever you do, don't do this," followed by an over-the-top response to the kid who will, of course, do "this," can turn that misbehavior into a game.

Toward the end of the episode, I was feeling empowered to turn tantrums into games. But not ten minutes later, when my kid was melting down in the produce section, I couldn't see past my rage to create a game. When we got back into car, it was helpful to hear Sapora offer some reassurance. Finding the game may not work in the moment if both you and your child are already melting down. But in that moment, you can think toward the future and what game you might try pre-meltdown. 

During these past weeks of upheaval for our family (surgery for kiddo, an out-of-state move, bad sprain for my other half), we've made finding the game our mantra. Can't get the post-op kid to stop moving? Build felt train tracks around him on the couch. Can't get the well-healing kid to stop unpacking all the glassware? Have him build a packing paper mountain. Can't get the now-faster-moving-than-you kid to get out of the way of incoming boxes? Challenge him to a race up the stairs that you know you can't win.

We've been feeling pretty good about our improved ability to find the game. But last weekend, when scoping out our new grocery store, we got schooled. 

We were watching a woman pushing a cart toward the back of the store, with one girl in the front and another trailing behind. Both girls looked tired of this errand. She looked at them and issued a challenge: "Who can find the toothpaste first?" The girl on foot bounced down the aisle and the girl in the cart turned back and forth as far as it would allow. The mom cackled "Ha ha! I can read!" and sprinted for the personal care aisle. 

My husband and I stopped, stunned at how masterfully she'd turned the trip around. When we caught up to them later, I couldn't resist complimenting the mom: "That game was inspired." 

The older girl looked up. "What game?"

The mom smiled at me and then looked at the girls--"Oh, nothing"--and walked away. 

And so I learned a second important lesson about finding the game: It's not a game if you say it's a game.